How Boston Helped Rainn Wilson Fall in Love with Acting

'It all happened one fateful matinee at Government Center.'

Rainn Wilson Photo by Helga Esteb /

Rainn Wilson Photo by Helga Esteb /

A red sunset peeked through the falling snow as Rainn Wilson walked out of a matinee screening at Government Center one winter afternoon in 1985.

The Office star was in the Boston area visiting his estranged birth mother when he decided to check out the film version of A Chorus Line, a decision that would have a lasting impact on his acting career.

While Wilson had been studying in Tufts University’s experimental theater program, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to become a professional actor. His father wasn’t able to make it as an artist, and Wilson knew that it would take a major commitment in order to be successful.

Despite calling it “one of the worst musicals ever put to film,” A Chorus Line struck a chord with Wilson because he could relate to the characters, who were also aspiring actors. Wiping away the tears as he left the theater, Wilson knew he had to go after his dream.

“I just related on such a deep level. It hit my heart and I just was crying in the theater,” Wilson says. “After that I went and auditioned for theater training programs and actually got into NYU and went and studied theater there. It all happened one fateful matinee at Government Center.”

Before departing for New York, Wilson had a brief but memorable stay in Boston, which he devotes a whole chapter to in his new memoir, The Bassoon King.

The actor has many positive memories of working on quirky plays with fellow Tufts students, such as a very young Hank Azaria. However, his time in the city wasn’t all fun and games.

Wilson’s father and stepmother divorced just months into his freshman year, which made things extremely tough on him. Thankfully, his biological mother—who took off when Wilson was just a toddler—was living in Salem with her new husband.

He was able to reconnect with her and learned all about his mother’s admittedly hippie past, including her stint as a witch at the Salem Witch Museum. It would be years, though, until Wilson was able to find out the full story behind why she left her family as well as why his dad was hesitant about his son pursuing a job in the arts.

The actor finally discovered all of the details during a profound conversation with his mother at, of all places, a graveyard in Salem.

“I said, ‘Why did you leave me and my dad when I was two years old? What happened?'” Wilson recalls asking her. “She said, ‘Well, I was doing a play and I had an affair with the theater director and I left.’ I knew that had devastated my dad, but he never told me at all growing up. So I didn’t find out until I was in my early 20s.”

“I just thought it was so interesting that she had been an actor and that there were these negative associations with acting itself,” Wilson adds. “It was a pretty profound realization.”

Even though his family was somewhat scarred by their involvement in the acting world, he was not dissuaded from pursuing a life as a performer.

Wilson would go on to earn his MFA from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University before landing gigs on shows like CharmedCSI, and Law & Order. His breakout role, of course, came in 2005, when he debuted as assistant to the regional manager Dwight Schrute on NBC’s wildly popular sitcom, The Office.

The path to stardom may have led Wilson miles away from Boston to the confines of a goofy paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but he’s always carried a bit of the city with him.

One could even say that the DNA of the series has a distinct Boston influence, considering stars Steve Carell, John Krasinski, Mindy Kaling, and B.J. Novak all hail from Massachusetts. Showrunner Greg Daniels also has some roots in the city, since he’s an alumnus of Harvard University.

“I think that the writers and the actors, they really know New England and that working class world, a medium-size New England town,” Wilson says. “So, I think that’s definitely infused in The Office.”

Rainn Wilson will make an appearance at the Wilbur Theatre on Wednesday, November 11.